by Boonthan Sakanond
(IPS) BANGKOK --
international clamor grows to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to trial for crimes against humanity, attention is turning to an earlier genocide in Cambodia caused by the U.S. bombing of the countryside in the Indochina war.
The bombings, carried out between 1969 and 1973 against alleged North Vietnamese army infiltrators, are estimated to have killed more than 600,000 Cambodian peasants and displaced millions.
Many historians and analysts have claimed the brutality of the bombings were responsible for forcing large sections of the Cambodian population into the arms of the extremist Khmer Rouge, a key reason for their ascent to power in 1975.
The issue of probing the U.S. role in genocide in Cambodia has been raised often before by intellectuals and human rights activists. It shot into global attention again last month, with a call by Cambodian Premier Hun Sen to widen the war crimes inquiry against the Khmer Rouge to include the role of the U.S., China and other countries.
In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Hun Sen said that any tribunal should investigate the deaths of Cambodian people between the years 1970 to 1998.
Apart from the genocidal bombing of Cambodia during the early seventies the U.S., along with China and Thailand, is also accused of supporting the Khmer Rouge after its overthrow from power in 1979 by dissident militia backed by the Vietnamese army.
1.7 million people died during the Khmer Rouge rule, from 1975 to 1979, from torture, disease, starvation, overwork or execution.
"After carrying out the crime of genocide from 1975 to 1979 and being expelled from power, the Pol Pot political and military organization still existed," Hun Sen said in his letter to Annan. According to him, a closer look at the period after the Khmer Rouge were forced from power was "unavoidable."
Thousands died in the civil war between government and extremists, and also due to a U.S.-sponsored international embargo against the country during the eighties.
Hun Sen's critics have argued that by calling for a wider inquiry, he is attempting to delay and "dilute" efforts to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to trial.
Last month, Hun Sen welcomed two senior Khmer Rouge leaders, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and hinted the government was willing to make a compromise with them if they returned to the national mainstream.
Hun Sen, who has played a key role in the neutralization of the Khmer Rouge as a guerrilla force through use of force and by encouraging defections, later retracted his statement and reiterated the need for a trial.
While there has been no official response from the United States to Hun Sen's call for a wider inquiry, his recent references to the Thai role in supporting the Khmer Rouge have evoked angry denials from the Thai government.
Despite evidence of Thailand's role since 1980 as a conduit for supply of arms and as a sanctuary to the Khmer Rouge, Thai premier Chuan Leekpai denied "any such support at any time."
Opposition to probing the pre and post-Khmer Rouge periods for possible crimes against humanity is also coming from some unexpected quarters.
Among those urging the Cambodian government to stick to the original plan of focusing only on the 1975-1979 period is Thomas Hammarberg, the United Nations human rights envoy to Cambodia.
Following a meeting with Hun Sen to clarify the issue, Hammarberg told a news conference in Phnom Penh the Cambodian premier had assured him that widening the scope of inquiry was not a "pre-condition" to going ahead with the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders.
Work on setting up a tribunal he said could begin by the end of the year, he said.
Hammarberg said a team of U.N. jurists would present to Annan proposals on how and where a tribunal might be held. These would be passed on to the Cambodian government and were expected to be made public in March, he added.
"Irrespective of Hun Sen's motives in raising the issue, the fact remains that the U.S; in particular was a major participant in the destruction of Cambodia and if justice is to be done their role should also be highlighted," said an Asian diplomat in Phnom Penh.
He admits that the idea is not likely to find many backers as it involves taking on the political and "propaganda" might of the United States, which has never owned moral responsibility for its genocidal policies in Indochina and still believes it is an "aggrieved party."
"All the dead victims of the Cambodian conflict need justice, and not just those killed by the Khmer Rouge," said Francois Ponchaud, a well-known French missionary in Cambodia and one of the first to expose Khmer Rouge atrocities to the world through his book "Cambodia: Year Zero in 1976."
One of the earliest independent inquiries into the conflict in Cambodia, carried out by a Finnish commission of academicians in 1980-81 concluded that the US bombings, apart from killing thousands, led to a "near complete breakdown of traditional social structure."
Nearly two million Cambodians were displaced as they sought refuge from the estimated 530,000 tonnes of bombs the U.S. dropped -- thrice the amount dropped on Japan in the Pacific War.
In the 1969-1973 bombings, rice production in Cambodia fell by nearly 70 percent, nearly 75 percent of domestic animals were killed, much of the small industrial sector was destroyed and more than 40 percent of its road network made unusable.
Some analysts have attributed at least part of the more than 1.7 million deaths during the Khmer Rouge period to the harsh physical conditions created by the preceding war.
"The executioners are not willing and the victims are rarely able to provide exact details," observed historian Gabriel Kolko, writing of U.S. atrocities during the Vietnam War in 1970.
February 22, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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